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The Commitment of the Intellectual
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What is an intellectual? The most obvious answer would seem Professor of Economics at to be: a person working with his intellect, relying for his Stanford University, and a frequent contributor to these livelihood (or if he need not worry about such things, for the pages, PAUL BARAN is the gratification of his interests) on his brain rather than on his author of MR Press book, The brawn. Yet simple and straightforward as it is, this definition Political Economy of Growth, and would be generally considered to be quite inadequate. Fitting the recent pamphlets, everyone who is not engaged in physical labor, it clearly does Reflections, on the Cuban and Revolution and Marxism not jibe with the common understanding of the term Psychoanalysis. “intellectual.” Indeed, the emergence of expressions such as “long-haired professor” and “egghead” suggests that somewhere in the public consciousness there exists a different notion encompassing a certain category of people who constitute a narrower stratum than those “working with their brains.” This is not merely a terminological quibble. The existence of these two different concepts rather reflects an actual social condition, the understanding of which can take us a long way towards a better appreciation of the place and the function of the intellectual in society. For the first definition, broad as it is, applies accurately to a large group of people forming an important part of society: individuals working with their minds rather than with their muscles, living off their wits rather than off their hands. Let us call these people intellect workers. They are businessmen and physicians, corporate executives and purveyors of “culture,” stockbrokers and university professors. There is nothing invidious in this aggregation, no more than there is in the notion “all Americans,” or “all people who smoke a pipe.” The steady proliferation of that group of intellect workers represents one of the most spectacular results of historical development thus far. It reflects a crucially important aspect of the social division of labor, beginning with the early crystallization of a professional clergy and reaching its acme under advanced capitalism—the separation of mental from manual activity, of white collar from blue collar. Both the causes and the consequences of this separation are complex and all-pervasive. Rendered possible by, and contributing mightily to, the continual expansion of productivity, this separation has become at the same time one of the principal facets of the progressive disintegration of the individual, of what Marx referred to as the “alienation of man from himself.” This alienation expresses itself not only in the crippling and distorting effect of this separation on the harmonious development and growth of the individual—an effect which is not mitigated but underscored by the intellect workers’ getting some “exercise” and by the manual workers occasional partaking of “culture”—but also in the radical polarization of society into two exclusive and all but unrelating camps. This polarization, cutting across the antagonism between social classes, generates a thick ideological fog obscuring the genuine challenges confronting society, and creates issues as false and schisms as destructive as those resulting from racial prejudice or religious superstition. For all intellect workers have one obvious
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McChesney The Politics of Genocide – New Edition by Edward S. if he is conscientious and ambitious. and he will carefully. mastery. the intellect worker regards dealing with problems of that totality as one specialty among many. the rest of the world.P. and manipulation of whatever branch of reality he is immediately concerned with. identify themselves with the intellect workers who comprise the ruling class. scientifically attend to his assignment. As a president of a corporation. to repeat. For. too. to inflate the importance of formal education. less remunerative.The Commitment of the Intellectual :: Monthly Review interest in common: not to be reduced to the more onerous. http://monthlyreview. This is to him the “field” of philosophers. but this could easily be misunderstood. He may not be satisfied with the level of costs in the factory which he owns. if at all. one might almost say. the agent. If so. As an important government official. Snow as a “way to contract out. and hence will devote prodigious energies and talent to finding ways and means of expanding it. and sages. of academic degrees. and the War on Terror by Oliver Villar and Drew Cottle The God Market by Meera Nanda Wisconsin Uprising edited by Michael D. he may greatly influence the course of world affairs. an instinctive affinity to theories incorporating and rationalizing it. or in which he is employed. Death Squads. And in seeking to protect their position. This position. the functionary.org/1961/05/01/the-commitment-of-the-intellectual by John Bellam y Foster and Robert W. the ancestry of which is at least as distinguished as that of Adam Smith. It is for you. Driven by this interest. attend to their business. let others. He may be given the task of “selling” public opinion on a new soap or a new political candidate. McChesney 12/24/2012 Param ilitarismand the Assault on Dem ocracy in Haiti by Jeb Sprague FromSolidarity to Sellout by Tadeusz Kowalik The Contradictions of “Real Socialism by ” Michael A. merely marginally. to be as efficient and as successful at it as possible. its significance. One might be tempted to call him a technician.”1 And what applies to scientists applies with equal force to all other intellect workers. if at all. Yet he has. and side with the social order which has given rise to their status and which has created and protected their privileges. let alone of influencing. to exaggerate the difficulty of their work and the complexity of the skills required for it. and— since they are the ones who set the norms of respectability—less respected manual labor. All this is clearly not what is meant by the term “technician. In the light of this philosophy. But as scientists. Typically. to say how the tools are used. Lebowitz An Introduction to the Three Volum of Karl es Marx’s Capital by Michael Heinrich Capital Accum ulation and Wom Labour in Asian en’s Econom by Peter ies Custers with a new introduction by Jayati Ghosh The Unlikely Secret Agent by Ronnie Kasrils Cocaine. has been aptly referred to by C.” In Snows words. Yates with a foreword by Robert W.” which usually denotes individuals whose task it is not to formulate policies but to carry them out. Not that every intellect worker explicitly formulates and consciously holds this view. experience. assembles parts of an engine. he takes the existing order of things for granted and questions the prevailing state of affairs solely within the limited area of his immediate preoccupation. Accustomed to think in terms of training. artists. its place within the entire framework of social activity. And as a head of a large foundation or scientific organization. they pitch themselves against manual labor. he may determine the direction and the methods of research of a large number of scientists over a long period of time. religious functionaries. And the strength and influence of this philosophy derive from the very important truth that it conveys: that under capitalism the whole confronts the individual as an overpowering objectified process irrationally propelled by obscure forces which he is incapable of comprehending. This preoccupation is with the job in hand. In still other words. It is the rationalization. we stop there. from the manual worker who molds metal sheets. those “who want to contract out say we produce the tools. the intellect worker as such is not addressing himself to the meaning of his work. or politicians. that is to say in his capacity as a citizen. Thus under capitalism the intellect worker is typically the faithful servant. He may not be content with the current knowledge of the structure of the atom. of the divorce between science and technology on the one side and the formulation of goals and values on the other. the concern with the whole moves out of the center of the individuals preoccupation. Herm and David an Peterson 2/6 . His “natural” motto is to mind his own business. and. and the spokesman of the capitalist system. not to set goals but to work out the means of their realization. and may seek to lower them. One of them is Adam Smiths time-honored and well known concept of the world in which everyone by cultivating his own garden contributes most to the flourishing of the gardens of all. they tend to hypostatize their own position. he may make weighty decisions affecting the national economy as well as the jobs and lives of thousands of people. the politicians. In this regard he differs little. he is not concerned with the relation of the segment of human endeavor within which he happens to operate to other segments and to the totality of the historical process. this is no concern of ours. even as “culture” or “values” are the business of poets. For the rest. manages. we are sorry. whatever it may be. The other theory which reflects the condition and satisfies the requirements of the intellect worker is the notion of the separation of means from ends. and affects him. and competence. And yet the designation “technician” comes closer to encompassing the nature of what I mean by “intellect worker” than the customary use of the word would suggest. The tools may be used for purposes which most of us would regard as bad. not to provide the great designs but to look after the small details. or lays bricks in constructing a wall. Putting it in negative terms. the purpose of the intellect workers work and thought is the particular job in hand. etc.
nor do they feel qualified to express a preference for one goal over another. This principle “the truth is the whole”—to use an expression of Hegel—carries with it.” It should be perfectly clear that such abdication amounts in practice to the endorsement of the status quo. studiously cultivated by bourgeois ideologists. to the dominant values. the economic order. and disjointed morsels of social existence under capitalism—literature. the intellect workers take an agnostic view of the ends themselves. or to the development of science at some other time. no set of conditions prevailing in society can be taken for granted. and Vivek Chibber The Rise of the Tea Party by Anthony DiMaggio José Carlos Mariátegui edited & translated by Harry E. as well as the uncovering of the specific interests which they serve at any particular time. art.” And it is wholly inadmissible to refrain from laying bare the complex relations between whatever phenomenon happens to be at issue and what is unquestionably the central core of the historical process: the dynamics and evolution of the social order itself. to the state of education now. necessarily appear to lie in strictly separate compartments of society’s knowledge and society’s labor—it is this effort to interconnect which constitutes one of the intellectuals outstanding characteristics. But as scientists. it is precisely this effort to interconnect things which. In fact. It is this “ethical neutrality” which has led many an economist. managers. experts.” “ethical judgments. and anthropologist to declare that qua Scientist he cannot express any opinion on whether it would be better or worse for the people of underdeveloped countries to enter the 12/24/2012 The Crisis and the Left edited by Leo Panitch. the identification of the social. Even more important is to realize the implications of the practice. science. “contracting out” leads in practice to the same attitude as the Smithian “minding ones own business” it is indeed nothing but another name for it. Now I submit that it is in the relation to the issues presented by the entire historical process that we must seek the decisive watershed separating intellect workers from intellectuals. They themselves constitute important aspects and results of the historical process and need not merely be taken cognizance of but must be examined with regard to their origin and to the part which they play in historical development. and disappearance.2 For what marks the intellectual and distinguishes him from the intellect workers and indeed from all others is that his concern with the entire historical process is not a tangential interest but permeates his thought and significantly affects his work. Greg Albo. For these “values” and “ethical judgments” which to the intellect workers are untouchable data. s Volum II by István e Mészáros The Science & Hum anism of Stephen Jay Gould by Richard York and Brett Clark The Invisible Handcuffs of Capitalismby Michael Perelm an http://monthlyreview. Indeed. And it is likewise this effort which identifies one of the intellectuals principal functions in society: to serve as a symbol and as a reminder of the fundamental fact that the seemingly autonomous. the cultural and psychic condition of people—can all be understood (and influenced) only if they are clearly visualized as parts of the comprehensive totality of the historical process. And this attitude remains essentially unaffected by the now generally felt disposition to put ones faith in the government rather than in the principles of laissez faire. they wish to refrain from endorsing one or another of these “value judgments. and success. Interpreting their function as the application of the most efficient means to the attainment of some stipulated ends. The result is the same: the concern with the whole becomes irrelevant to the individual. in turn. of regarding the so-called “values” held by people as lying outside the purview of scientific scrutiny. Vanden and Marc Becker What Every Environm entalist Needs To Know about Capitalism by Fred Magdoff and John Bellam Foster y Class Dism issed by John Marsh Revolutionary Doctors by Steve Brouwer The People’s Lawyer by Albert Ruben Social Structure and Form of Consciousness. Needless to say. Whether the investigation relates to unemployment in one country. And this raises a further issue. the defetishization of “values. scholars.” and the like. any single part of the whole. they believe they have nothing to do with the formulation of goals. change. do not drop from heaven. none can be considered to be “extraterritorial. This would be a manifest impossibility. As mentioned above. To be sure. to intellect workers operating within the framework of capitalist institutions and steeped in bourgeois ideology and culture. to substitute for Gods invisible hand the more obvious if by no means necessarily more beneficent hand of the capitalist state. achievement. to lending a helping hand to those who are seeking to obstruct any change of the existing order of things in favor of a better one.The Commitment of the Intellectual :: Monthly Review scientists applies with equal force to all other intellect workers. they admit that they may have some predilections as citizens with their predilections counting for no more and no less than those of other citizens. this does not imply that the intellectual in his daily activity is engaged in the study of all of historical development. represent the greatest single contribution that an intellectual can make to the cause of human advancement. and technicians. disparate. and to the socially enforced yardsticks of efficiency. politics. sociologist. and by leaving this concern to others he eo ipso accepts the existing structure of the whole as a datum and subscribes to the prevailing criteria of rationality. In their capacities as specialists. to backwardness and squalor in another. economic. But what it does mean is that the intellectual is systematically seeking to relate whatever specific area he may be working in to other aspects of human existence. psychic causes of their emergence. the inescapable necessity of refusing to accept as a datum or to treat as immune from analysis.org/1961/05/01/the-commitment-of-the-intellectual 3/6 .
But the adherence to humanism. and happiness? Why should one seek a better life for the masses instead of taking good care of ones own interests? Why should one worry about the proverbial “milk for the Hottentots. from providing society with such humane orientation and such intelligent guidance as may be obtainable at every concrete junction on its historical journey. “all possible opinions count. But it could be objected at this point that I am begging the question. then we would bar precisely that stratum in society which has (or ought to have) the largest knowledge. It can be readily granted that there is no possibility of arriving at a judgment on what is good or bad for human advancement which would be absolutely valid regardless of time and space. and from one part of the world to another. The intellect workers withdrawal from seeking to influence the outcome of those “elections” is far from leaving a vacuum in the area of “value” formation. human welfare. and happiness of men. the frightening. The truth is that what constitutes an opportunity for human progress. And at no time has there been a possibility or. indeed. and the insistence on its indispensability is an aspect of a reactionary ideology. a necessity to arrive at absolutely valid solutions. as an eminent economist recently remarked. For it should be obvious that society’s “elections” do not come about by miracles. and the greatest possibility for exploring and assimilating historical experience. Disagreements. and is cajoled. and changing constellations of the historical process. P.” the “ethically neutral” minders of their own business. arguments. the contribution which scientists and intellect workers of all kinds are willing and able to make to society’s welfare? The answer. no more and no less than my own. indispensable to ascertain the nature. and it is in the name of the same “ethical neutrality” that eminent scientists have been devoting their energies and talents to the invention and perfection of means of bacteriological warfare. and the forcing. an axiomatic foundation without the acceptance of which an individual can neither consider himself nor be thought of as an intellectual. at all times there is a challenge to use mankinds accumulated wisdom. of conditions necessary for the health. for that matter. it is actually beside the point. It may be well to mention one further argument which is advanced by some of the most consistent “ethical neutralists.” They observe. is completely unsatisfactory. that it is the “know-how” for the realization of whatever objectives society may elect. speculative questions concerning “good” or “bad” in general. rather than militates against. and bitter struggles are unavoidable and. universally applicable judgment is what might be called a false target. The questions with regard to which judgments are required have never been abstract. one wastes ones time talking to beasts about matters related to people. development. differs in the course of history from one period to the next. sometimes haltingly and blushingly. contradictions.The Commitment of the Intellectual :: Monthly Review 12/24/2012 road to economic growth. If. indeed. it would seem that he believes the commitment of the intellectual to be http://monthlyreview. that society is guided into some “elections” by the ideology generated by the social order existing at any given time.” if such worry causes discomfort or inconvenience to oneself? Isn’t the humanitarian position in itself a “value judgment” for which there is no logical base? Some thirty years ago I was asked these questions in a public meeting by a Nazi student leader (who eventually became a prominent SS man and functionary of the Gestapo). they have always been concrete problems placed on the agenda of society by the tensions. and the best answer that I could think of then is still the best answer I can think of now: a meaningful discussion of human affairs can only be conducted with humans. But if we are to follow the “contractors out. and others whose intentions and designs are everything but humanitarian. constitutes what might be called the axiomatic foundation of all meaningful intellectual effort. and the means to the realization. Why shouldn’t some people starve if their suffering enables others to enjoy affluence. for improvement in the lot of men and also what is conducive of inimical to its realization. and forced into other “elections” by the interests which are in a position to do the cajoling. Snow leave no doubt that he would unreservedly accept this point of departure.” then what is.org/1961/05/01/the-commitment-of-the-intellectual 4/6 . frightened. Whatever force there may be in this argument. It merely abandons this vital field to charlatans. crooks. the most comprehensive education. freedom. Although the writings of C. But such an absolute. that the issue arises precisely because of the impossibility of deducing by means of evidence and logic alone any statements concerning what is good or what is bad or what contributes to. This is the issue on which the intellectual cannot compromise. that after all it is by no means establishable on grounds of evidence and logic that there is any virtue in being humanitarian. knowledge and experience to attain as close as possible an approximation to what constitutes the best solution under the prevailing conditions. the insistence on the principle that the quest for human advancement requires no scientific or logical justification.
every stretch of the way. and much ability. It may be said that I am identifying being an intellectual with being a hero. irrationalism. both as a responsibility and as a privilege. the more difficult it becomes for the intellectual to withstand the social pressures brought upon him. It always took much courage. the principal reason for his admiration for scientists is their devotion to truth. Without that desire. p. and more rational social order. and in this way to help overcome the obstacles barring the way to the attainment of a better. while this injunction goes a long way towards formulating the basic commitment of the intellectual. 507. and progress that constitutes our most valuable inheritance from the entire history of mankind. Thus in this domain what constitutes truth is frequently (and can be safely) sought and said about things that do not matter. to avoid surrendering to the ruling ideology and succumbing to the intellect workers comfortable and lucrative conformity.org/1961/05/01/the-commitment-of-the-intellectual 5/6 .) And yet. obscurantism. as published in Monthly Review. and superstition. All that can be hoped for now is that our country too will produce its “quota” of men and women who will defend the honor of the intellectual against all the fury of dominant interests and against all the assaults of agnosticism. The other is courage. It is the driving force of the whole activity. reason. readiness to carry on rational inquiry to wherever it may lead. telling the truth about what does matter. Scientists— he says in the previously referred to address—“want to find what is there. ruthless in the sense that the criticism will not shrink either from its own conclusions or from conflict with the powers that be. That is. The more reactionary a ruling class. ↩ Address delivered to the American Association for the Advancement of Science in New York on December 27. The desire to tell the truth is therefore only one condition for being an intellectual. and there are powerful forces at work shunting the energies and abilities of scientists in certain directions and impeding or sterilizing the results of their work in others. subversive or seditious at worst. you mustn’t deceive yourself or anyone else. You mustn’t lie to yourself. I agree that it would be unreasonable to demand it. there is no science. if the fact is isolated from the historical process in which it is imbedded. more humane. And by the same token. For it is under such conditions that it falls to his lot. 1960. and inhumanity. N o t e s 1. the problem assumes central significance. the more obvious it becomes that the social order over which it presides has turned into an impediment to human liberation. that it is unreasonable to demand from people that they should withstand all the pressures of vested interests and brave all the dangers to their individual well-being for the sake of human advancement. and outright intimidation. a person whose concern is to identify. Under such conditions it becomes a matter of supreme importance and urgency to insist on the function and to stress the commitment of the intellectual. the more is its ideology taken over by anti-intellectualism. For the problem is not merely whether truth is being told but also what constitutes truth in any given case as well as about what it is being told and about what it is being withheld Even in the area of the natural sciences these are important issues. When it comes to matters related to the structure and dynamics of society. (It is worth noting here that there is also no basis in evidence or logic for the proposition that truth should be preferred to lies!) In fact. if you’re going to find what is there. On the other hand. From history we know of many individuals who have been able even in its darkest ages and under the most trying conditions to transcend their private. At the crudest level. you mustn’t fake your experiments. Nor do I. As such he becomes the conscience of society and the spokesman of such progressive forces as it contains in any given period of history. with the insistence on the pursuit and pronouncement of that kind of truth becoming a powerful ideological weapon of the defenders of the status quo.” (Italics in the original. http://monthlyreview. Italics in the original. to undertake “ruthless criticism of everything that exists. to analyze. much integrity. It compels the scientist to have an overriding respect for truth. social ostracism. seeking the truth about the whole. And as such he is inevitably considered a “troublemaker” and a “nuisance” by the ruling class seeking to preserve the status quo. and uncovering the social and historical causes and interconnections of the different parts of the whole is decried as unscientific and speculative and is punished by professional discrimination. February. as well as by the intellect workers in its service who accuse the intellectual of being utopian or metaphysical at best. For a true statement about a social fact can (and most likely will) turn into a lie if the fact referred to is torn out of the social whole of which it forms an integral part.The Commitment of the Intellectual :: Monthly Review 12/24/2012 essentially reducible to the obligation to speak the truth. to save from extinction the tradition of humanism. 1961. it falls short of taking care of the entire problem.” (Marx) An intellectual is thus in essence a social critic. selfish interests and to subordinate them to the interests of society as a whole.
The Commitment of the Intellectual :: Monthly Review 2. Monthly Review Foundation. NY 10001 Tel: (212) 691-2555. 146 W.S. http://monthlyreview. New York. ↩ To avoid a possible misunderstanding: intellect workers can be (and sometimes are) 12/24/2012 intellectuals. Suite 6W.org/1961/05/01/the-commitment-of-the-intellectual 6/6 . 29th Street. Outside of NY: (1-800) 670-9499. or farmer can be (and in some historical situations often has been) an intellectual without being an intellect worker. I say frequently. Fax: (212) 727-3676 Log in All Material copyright © 2012 Monthly Review. and intellectuals are frequently intellect workers. ^ Return to top Previous: Cuba and the U. artisan. because many an industrial worker.
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